The myth of Reagan’s GOP convention speech in 1964

Scott Bomboy

A look back at famous political conventions shows that a widely attributed landmark speech by Ronald Reagan never happened in 1964 at the GOP convention in San Francisco.

Reagan did give the speech of his life in 1964, which set him on the path to the presidency and established many of the current philosophical foundations of the Republican party.

Among conservatives is known as “The Speech”; it later became called “A Time for Choosing.”

But somehow, that televised speech in late October 1964, to promote Barry Goldwater’s campaign, has morphed into the GOP convention keynote speech of 1964, through the power of Wikipedia and people who repeated the story online.

A quick look at the Wikipedia page for the 1964 Republican national convention, as of August 9, shows the speech allegedly happened in San Francisco in mid-July 1964.

“Worth noting is that the Keynote Address was given by then actor Ronald Reagan, who had officially become a Republican during the election. Reagan’s speech was very well received and it is believed to be the start of his political career; within two years Reagan successfully ran for Governor of California in 1966,” says Wikipedia, with no attribution to the source for the paragraph.

We stumbled on the problem while fact-checking a story on the presidential success of keynote speakers.

As far as we can tell, Barack Obama (the 2004 keynote speaker for the Democrats) has been the only keynote speaker eventually elected as president for generations. There is also a lot of evidence that Warren Harding gave a lengthy speech as the keynote at the 1916 GOP convention.

The real 1964 speech

Newsreel footage from 1964 shows Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield preparing to be the keynote speaker in San Francisco. He even previewed part of the speech for the cameras. Other sources online show the actual speech.

We also checked the index for the convention’s proceedings, which is available online. It says Hatfield gave the speech–and Reagan didn’t make any remarks.

To be sure, we also reached out to the Reagan Library and Museum in California, which hosts the president’s archives.

The library confirmed the speech didn’t happen at the convention and that it is also unclear if Reagan was even at the convention, despite it being in California.

The myth has been repeated often online.

A 2011 blog commentary from Fox News host Greta Van Susteren cites the 1964 Reagan convention keynote speech.

“Ronald Reagan’s Speech at the 1964 Republican Convention: I like to study history and YouTube gives us a chance …,” Van Susteren said on her Twitter account about the convention speech.

A recent blog post on Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze references the 1964 Reagan keynote speech. A commenter quickly issued a correction at the bottom of the story.

References to the 1964 keynote speech are littered throughout Google and YouTube.

The interesting fact isn’t that Wikipedia has an incorrect fact. The popular website encourages contributors to make corrections.

It’s more likely the subconscious act of people who wish Reagan really gave the speech in July 1964 at the convention. Goldwater was the likely candidate against Lyndon Johnson and the convention was deeply divided, in the worst Republican split since 1912.

Johnson succeeded in painting Goldwater as an extremist. Would he have had the same success against a GOP united by a Reagan keynote speech, three months before the election?

In his book, Speaking My Mind, Reagan recounts how he was giving a similar stump speech in California to support Goldwater when he was asked to tape it for a national broadcast. Reagan came up with the idea of adding a live audience.

“I went up and down the state with a campaign speech I’d written that wasn’t too different in tone and message from my GE presentations. The speech seemed to go over very well,” he said.

After the speech aired, Reagan knew he was onto something.

Links: Full Text Of Speech | Full Video

“One of Barry’s staff called to tell me that the switchboard was still lit up from the calls pledging money to his campaign. I then slept peacefully. The speech raised $8 million and soon changed my entire life,” he said.

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